Monthly Archives

February 2005

Reports

RailPAC 2005 Annual Meeting

Oakland — By Russ Jackson, Secretary

Shown speaking at the RailPAC meeting is Santa Cruz director Matt Melzer, announcing that the Glendale station will be replaced by the Van Nuys station for the Coast Starlight beginning with the March timetable. Others at the table are (left to right) Oakland director Anthony Lee, Sacramento director Marcia Johnston, President Noel Braymer from Oceanside, and guest Bill Lindley, Scottsdale, from the Arizona RPA who is also RailPAC’s web master.

The 2005 RailPAC Annual Meeting was held on Saturday, February 5, at the Yia Yia Sandwich Shop, Jack London Square Amtrak Station, Oakland. Thirty members attended the spirited session, typical of all RailPAC meetings where lively discussions are always welcome.

After being welcomed by President Noel Braymer and Executive Director Richard Silver, and lunch orders placed, the election of officers and board members was the first item of official business. The bylaws call for some board members to be elected, and the board has the option to appoint others, but all have official status as directors of the organization. We welcomed new directors Paul Dyson, Burbank, Bruce Jenkins, Mountain View, and Dennis Storey, Santa Barbara as directors, and Chris Flescher, Salinas as an Associate director. A complete list can be found on the back page of each issue of the Western Rail Passenger Review. Richard Silver was reappointed as Executive Director to serve another year. The board members present recognized Ric Silver’s many contributions to the organization. Treasurer Jim Clifton reported how the organization is healthy financially, and there is no need for a dues increase again this year.

Director Richard Spotswood, a former Mayor of Mill Valley, a former member of the Golden Gate Bridge Authority board, and currently a columnist for the Marin Independent Journal newspaper, spoke about the future of the Sonoma-Marin commuter line project (SMART), speaking of the funding obstacles ahead, but enthusiastic about the support the program has in the two counties. The project is expected to use DMU vehicles, similar to those purchased by the Sprinter project (Escondido-Oceanside) in San Diego County (which President Braymer reported was at last under construction). Mr. Spotswood also spoke at length of how important public input into these projects is, and its importance to the future of all transportation projects. “A small group of naysayers can doom a project to failure if they become the only public voices speaking about it,” Mr. Spotswood said.

President Braymer then led a spirited discussion of current issues, with the looming crisis at Amtrak over funding (is there ever not one?) the top agenda item as the Bush budget calling for zeroing out Amtrak as we know it had been leaked the day before. There was general agreement that the Congress will act to restore funds to Amtrak, although how much was the big question, and what would Amtrak do if it received a big cut. Some speakers called for the company to work harder to sell tickets to make up for government shortfalls. Members were urged to write their support for Amtrak and passenger rail to politicians everywhere, not just those that are already known as supporters.

RailPAC Associate Director and webmaster of www.railpac.org, Bill Lindley from Phoenix, Arizona, spoke of the impending building of the Phoenix light rail project and the imminent return to service of the West Phoenix UP branch line that carried the Sunset Limited into Phoenix for many years. That line will initially open at a speed restriction of 40 mph. Whether Amtrak will decide to return to that line into the city of Phoenix and abandon the Maricopa station is yet to be decided.

Other topics discussed were the safety of cab cars, following the horrible Metrolink crash a few weeks earlier, as cab cars are in use on Surfliners, San Joaquins, and Capitols in California, as well as on Metrolink, ACE, Coaster and Caltrain. The unique circumstances of that Glendale crash was not a true test of the cab cars, but strengthening them must be investigated. Sacramento Director Marcia Johnston reported the state’s rail program budget for the next year as submitted by the Governor contains no reduction in funding, but that must be watched. Warren Weber, Chief of the Division of Rail at Caltrans has retired, and the interim chief is Bill Bronte. RailPAC has written urging Mr. Bronte be the permanent chief, as he is very qualified to hold the position. And, the long-awaited restoration of the Fresno Amtrak station will be dedicated on Saturday, February 12 at noon. Several RailPAC board members plan to attend. Look for pictures of that event on www.railpac.org in March.

Commentary

Bad start to the New Year

by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President — Well, to be frank, January stank. The first half of January it rained constantly. The result was washouts and mudslides that disrupted rail service throughout California. Canceled and late trains due to heavy snows in the Midwest and East didn’t help project the image of passenger rail service as the all weather mode. Then came January 26th. One person who thought he had problems wanted to use the rails to kill himself. Now charged with 11 counts of murder he will find out what real trouble is. Mix into this the latest State budget battle with transportation funds being stolen again to help pay the State’s other bills.

What do all these things have in common? Well the solution to many of our problems in improving rail service in California depend on capital spending. We still need to upgrade many rail lines to make them less vulnerable to mudslides and washouts. We have heard a lot about “Security” on the Trains. Asking a to see a person’s identification is mostly a waste of time. Bad people can easily get forged papers. Most disasters don’t happen on the trains, they happen on the tracks! Suicidal people are increasingly drawn to the tracks. Vandals often place debris on the tracks, throw switches in the wrong location, and damage signals. The most common problem are vehicles at or near grade crossings the train can’t avoid hitting..

We need to spend money. We need better security on the tracks, particularly on busy mainlines such as at the disaster in Glendale. We need more grade separation particularly on the mainlines to keep vehicles and trespasser off the railroad. We need improved signaling that can stop a train if it runs through a red light. Having cameras and sensors on the right of way to detect things on the tracks that don’t belong, and the ability to stop trains if there is a problem is better than spending money for seat belts on passenger trains.

One thing the State budget needs to bring in enough tax revenues is a strong economy. For that we need economic growth. Economic growth depends on good transportation and housing. Housing is big business and there is a shortage of housing in California which is holding back growth in California. Developers are some of the biggest boasters of road building. Building roads does nothing to relieve traffic congestion.: roads create traffic. What roads do is open more land to development. The problem is roads are so congested that it is getting harder to dump any more traffic on them. Also, land is becoming harder to find for development. Rising fuel costs will make 100 mile commutes by auto less appealing. Commuter and transit rail is needed to make higher density development attractive and practical. Rail service will be the key to insure economic growth, more housing and promote greater energy efficiency.

As long as I can remember, which goes back to the late 50’s, there has been talk that buses can replace rail service. These proposals were usually not promoted by the traveling public, but by groups competing with rail for scarce tax dollars for other projects. Busways , and bus streets and now rapid bus have been promoted as “cheaper alternatives to rail.” Buses have lower initial capital costs, But fall short of rail in economics when it comes to capacity and operating cost per passenger. There is a need to improve bus service. But what bus service doesn’t do, which rail service can do well is attract development. The San Diego Trolley is being used to rebuild downtown San Diego. At many trains stations around California we see housing and commercial development. Rail can be in the 21st century what the freeway was in the 20th as the magnet for development.

For this to happen, commuters have to have confidence that rail service is dependable and safe. It is cold comfort to realize the death toll was remarkably low on the 26th in Glendale considering the number of people on the two trains and the violence of the impact of trains hitting each other head on. Rail Passenger service is still very safe. But it can be safer. The best way to make it safer is to prevent trains from being hit, or hitting each other in the first place.